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20 Horror Faves

Way back when, Stacie Ponder of Final Girl requested that all the horror-loving folks out in blogland send her their 20 favorite horror movies. They responded en masse. I was part of that masse! Well, I figured, why not milk that list for some actual content? Thus, here it is: my list, in its chronological, 20-entries-long glory. It was a painful list to come up with, and I’m missing some of my other special favorites, but it’s decent, I think.

  • The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927): So macabre, so weird, so Freudian, so fucked-up. Also, probably Lon Chaney’s best surviving performance. (I mean, Burt Lancaster loved it!)
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932): The best version of Stevenson’s tale, no matter what the Victor Fleming partisans tell you. Also, Miriam Hopkins’ sexy leg [courtesy of Lolita’s Classics]:

  • Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932): Um, duh! More about this forthcoming later in the month.
  • Maniac (Dwain Esper, 1934): “DARTS OF FIRE IN MY BRAIN!” Looniest, wackiest, most maniacal exploitation movie of all time.
  • Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935): Whale at his gleefully perverse best. I wish Dr. Pretorious was my boyfriend!
  • Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935): Peter Lorre is a creepy fucker, plus obsession and grand guignol! I adore this movie.
  • Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942): One of the seminal Hollywood horror movies, at once erotic, repressed, and scary as hell.
  • The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943): And another Val Lewton masterpiece! Unbelievably morbid and moodily poetic.
  • Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti et al., 1945): The segments are uneven, but Michael Redgrave vs. a ventriloquist dummy, together with the nightmare finale, is more than worth it. Ealing should’ve made more horror.
  • Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1959): Franju tells his really icky mad scientist story with a delightful sense of humor. Valli makes a great (evil) lab assistant, and the design of the mask is so simple as to be nightmare-inducing.
  • Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962): This is easily in the top 5 on this list. Independently made with an unblinking vision of existential horror, it also has one-time actress Candace Hilligoss giving the performance of a lifetime. “WHY CAN’T ANYBODY HEAR ME?”
  • The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963): I fucking love Julie Harris here; she leads a pretty much perfect cast as they navigate the recesses of a very angry house.
  • Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964): I talked about this recently, but to recap: it’s a brutal tale of two women and a man in the wilderness, with a big hole in the middle. So greasy and desperate, I love it.

  • Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968): It’s a pretty canonical choice. Romero was a true original, resourcefully squeezing all the metaphorical value he could out of a solid cast, a boarded-up house, and some brain-craving zombies.
  • Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1973): SO DEPRESSING. Watching this movie is like masturbating with a shard of broken glass. OK, I’m done drawing analogies now. But seriously, Bergman turns family drama into ultra-visceral horror.
  • The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976): The underrated third member of Polanski’s Apartment trilogy, it’s really stuck with me. I don’t know if it’s Trelkovsky’s miserably kafkaesque relationship with his neighbors, or him wearing a dress and whispering, “I think I’m pregnant!”
  • The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982): When Poe wrote the words “desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted,” I think he was anticipating the lingering dread and scary-as-shit special effects of Carpenter’s masterpiece.

  • Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988): I wish Jeremy Irons were my drug-addicted gynecologist brother. But then I’d have to be Jeremy Irons. Also, mutant vaginas. What’s not to love?
  • 28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle, 2003): I wasn’t expecting it, but Boyle’s neo-zombie odyssey across postapocalyptic England has insinuated itself into my bloodstream like a particularly pernicious virus.
  • Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008): Aren’t those kids cute? And isn’t that movie startlingly beautiful and well-written?

Are you shocked by my bad taste? Or shocked by my good taste? Comment below.

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Gives me the willies!

Ashley:

I <3 scary movie lists. So, I got super excited when I read on Final Girl and The Horror Digest about Top Ten Willie Inducing Moments list! So here are the moments that give me the chills.

Let the Right One In (2008) – Eli’s “old face”

Let the Right One In is a masterpiece of a vampire film. It’s not the scariest movie in the world but it does have some very chilling moments. For me, Eli’s older face is one of them. I think the reason it freaks me out so much to the point of not even wanting to look at it, is because it’s so subtle. You only really realize after the fact, once her face changes back that it was just totally fucking different a second before.  How Oskar didn’t run screaming from the room the moment that face looked up at him is beyond me; that’s true love, fo’ sho.

Black Christmas (1975) – “I’m going to kill you.”

The original Black Christmas is a movie that scares me so deeply that I can’t even explain it. The first time I watched this movie, I couldn’t sleep right for a few nights afterward. There’s just something about it that gets under my skin and makes me feel unsafe. This moment happens about 8 minutes into the movie and it freaks me the fuck out. We have these excruciatingly long moments listening to grotesque sounds and words coming from the phone and then, without skipping a fucking beat, it switches to complete calm,  telling Barb, “I’m going to kill you.” My stomach literally dropped the first time I saw this part, it scared me so much. I’ve watched this movie with people who just thought this part was HI-LARIOUS and it just goes to show you that different thing scare different people. Just watching this part so I could get this screen grab has me anxious.

Martyrs (2008) – the monster girl

Anything that moves really unnaturally scares me a lot. So, of course there are tons of Asian horror movies that have scary moments for me; that jerky, creepy movement is just not right, it’s not natural, it’s not human. However, the French Martyrs takes the cake for me in terms of stop-moving-like-that-goddammit! This is a brutal film, from start to finish. For the first half of the film, the terrifying monster that continually stalked and fucked up Lucie had me holding my breath, my hands clasped tightly over my mouth. The bathroom scene, where we finally see the creature in full, had me totally petrified. I couldn’t handle the way she moved, the way her bones protruded, the way her mouth was like some jagged black hole whenever she screamed. If I were Lucie, I would have killed myself a long fucking time ago just to get that thing away from me.

Pet Sematary (1989) – Zelda

I debated whether or not to put this one since I don’t consider Pet Sematary one of my favorite horror movies, and as an adult I’ve only seen the whole thing once or twice. But that doesn’t change the fact that at some point during my early childhood I saw parts of this movie; the parts with Zelda. And the image of her never, ever left my mind. I still have intense fears of going into a room and seeing someone hunched in the corner because of this movie. Watching the scenes with Zelda fills me with a sick kind of fear, the kind that makes me want to turn off what I’m watching RIGHT NAOW because I can’t stand looking at it or hearing it.

The Stepford Wives (1975) – bleakest ending ever

I’ve written about my love of The Stepford Wives in the past. This movie is terrifying to me on a very fundamental level; as someone who is very conscious of women’s issues and oppression and patriarchal power , the movie is bleak and gut-wrenching. No escape. No salvation. Death at the hands of men who don’t give a shit about substance or personality; they just want you to be ‘the perfect wife’. And they can pull it off. Because who’s going to question them?

Alice:

When Ashley told me about this “willie-inducing moment” thing, I immediately wanted in. Ergo, voilà! Since neither of us could put together a full 10, here’s my 5 to complete her list, in reverse-chronological order. May the willies be with you…

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – the death of Frank Poole

Space travel is already a pretty scary prospect: no oxygen, just a few other people, relying entirely on your womblike spaceship to get you to Jupiter safely. So when the computer gets pissed off and starts doing in one crew member after another, you’re pretty much fucked. Frank is the second-to-last astronaut left, and all his conspiring with Dave proves futile: HAL unhinges his suit’s umbilical cord, and off he goes, limbs flailing frantically, into the cold darkness. I’ve always thought going into space would be like the coolest thing ever. Then I think about this scene, and… maybe not.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) – the corpse at the top of the stairs

It’s great that one of the biggest scares in this classic isn’t the living dead at all. Barbra, running from the gentleman zombie who’s just killed her brother, enters a random house in the Pennsylvania wilderness. She hurries up the stairs, but then she sees this. We never really find out who this corpse belonged to or how they died; judging from the state of decay, it was clearly before the zombie onslaught. And since we only see it for a couple seconds at a time, it really sticks in our minds. All we really know is, stay the fuck off of the second floor! (This moment, I noticed, was also chosen by Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck. It’s just really seriously willie-inducing.)

The War Game (1965) – the first blast

This isn’t really a horror movie. It’s actually more of a political mockumentary. But Peter Watkins’ Oscar-winning film has dozens of these devastating, willies-eliciting moments. With chilling detachment, the film depicts a hypothetical near-future in which NATO vs. Communist Bloc tensions escalated to the point of full-scale nuclear war. This scene shows the first nuclear bombardment of England, as unprepared civilians are blinded by a far-off explosion. My willies are amplified by the accompanying voiceover: “At this distance, the heat wave is sufficient to cause melting of the upturned eyeball…”

Carnival of Souls (1962) – the face in the car window

This guy’s face reappears a lot in Carnival of Souls, as he persistently dogs the steps of our organist heroine Mary (Candace Hilligoss). It’s never clear who he is or what he wants, except that he’s probably dead, and he probably wants Mary to be dead, too. This is the first time we see him, as Mary drives through Utah by night. First, it’s her reflection in the window. Then, it’s him. Dear Scary Faces, please stop being where you shouldn’t, whether it’s in windows, mirrors, or nightmares. Sincerely, me.

Mad Love (1935) – Dr. Gogol disguised as the reanimated Rollo

OK, we all know Peter Lorre is one creepy motherfucker. We saw him make those faces in M. We watched him obsess over that piano-playing hand in The Beast with Five Fingers. He’s even creepy in non-horror movies, like Stranger on the Third Floor. But this scene, midway through Mad Love, may be Lorre’s creepiest moment ever. He’s not just being his (already crazy) self as the obsessive Dr. Gogol. Instead, he’s putting on a demented show by dressing up as the knife-thrower Rollo, who was executed earlier in the film, in order to freak out poor pianist Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive).

Let’s count everything that’s willie-inducing about this scene: 1) the neck brace and metal hands are totally nonfunctional – I think it’d be way less terrifying if his head actually had been reattached. 2) Still, the idea of reattaching a guillotined man’s head = ewww. 3) The sunglasses and hat almost entirely covering his face. 4) Lorre’s laughter. 5) He doesn’t even look like Rollo (played by Edward Brophy), yet Orlac falls for it. This is only one short scene, but that image – which I saw as a child in those devilish horror movie encyclopedias we had lying around the house – is so uncanny, so perverse, and so wrong in so many ways that it gives me the willies just thinking about it.

Ewww! Bad! No! In closing, I hope you enjoyed our willies.

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My Favorite Movies: Night of the Living Dead

The ghouls march together in George Romero's influential classic

I first saw George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968, viewable here) on Halloween morning during my freshman year of college, but the gruesome image you see above had already been in my head for years, since it adorned the empty VHS case my family once possessed. This illustrates the staying power and the measured gore of Romero’s imagery: shot in grainy black and white, it’s not shocking enough to make you jump (at least, not most of the time). But it can creep into the back of your head like a zombie encroaching on your personal space, until next thing you know you’re waking up in a cold sweat from nightmares of those infected teeth clamping down on your naked shoulder. The lasting fear its visuals create is but one side of this scary, clever film.

The plot of Night of the Living Dead is as simple and as bold as its title: the dead rise to eat the living. News reports peppered throughout the film (giving the crisis an air of authenticity) suggest that the problem is regional and spreading; however, the movie’s own little microcosm is a house in rural Pennsylvania whose occupants (seven, and dwindling) are besieged by a ghoulish horde – at first only one lumbering cannibal, but more and more as night falls upon them, growing into a hungry swarm. Under this set-up, Romero tells of human altruism (and selfishness) under extreme pressures, and the horrors of facing an enemy with a human face who doesn’t think or feel.

The first 5-10 minutes of Night focus on two characters, Barbra and Johnny, a brother and sister who visit their father’s grave site out in the country once a year to lay down flowers. The reason, then, for the film’s first action is death, and its remembrance. This theme continues throughout the film – while Johnny speaks dismissively of his father’s memory, it’s the memory of Johnny that paralyzes Barbra through the remaining hour and a half. And inherent in the film’s governing conceit is the fact that the dead are not buried and forgotten; they’re up and about, ready to terrorize the still-living. This casts some irony on Johnny’s arrogance toward the dead, as well as toward his sister’s (vindicated) fear.

The silent figure of destruction looming over Barbra

The opening scene, right up to the introduction of the film’s driving conflict (who appears as a tiny figure stumbling through the background), also goes from a mundane family outing full of sibling patter – albeit an outing to a cemetery, a location marked for horror – to a scene of sudden, blunt danger, where the normal world is intruded upon by violence and chaos.

It’s especially effective because all extraneous elements are discarded until we’re down to brother, sister, graveyard, ghoul. After some brief foreshadowing – Johnny’s oft-repeated line “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”, delivered in a haunting voice worthy of Karloff – the ghoul attacks, Barbra flees, Johnny is killed, and it all happens quickly and unmomentously, an initial volley out of nowhere in a war that will expand over the course of the film.

In this way, Night of the Living Dead is a horror movie that’s also kind of a rural war movie – a Battle of the Alamo or Custer’s Last Stand against an unexplained, inhuman Other. Humanity, embodied in three men, three women, and a sick young girl, is pitted against a remorseless, single-minded foe it does not understand, and its back is quite literally against the wall. Herein lies much of the situation’s horror: we have the fact that the monsters are superficially human, yet fundamentally different; they are unwilling to reason and seek only to destroy.

The iconically terrifying Karen Cooper: dehumanization and pubescent aggression

Then there’s the gradually implied apocalyptic scale of the disaster which, although somewhat remedied in the end, still throws a pall over hopes for escape by suggesting maybe there is no escape when our own dead can turn on us. It’s a surprisingly bleak movie that throws open the flood gates of mortality and doesn’t really leave a ray of hope, regardless of whether or not the ghouls are eventually exterminated.

This all-consuming fear and hopelessness is especially stark in light of the fact that Night was originally plotted to be a “horror comedy,” in addition to the satirical elements in Romero’s subsequent work, and the spoofs the film has inspired (including a whole series from co-writer John Russo).

But there’s no mistaking the lack of humor, the characters’ increasing levels of panic and anxiety, and the somber aftertaste left by the finale. This is a horror film that embraces the fundamentals of a nightmare: an internal world where agonizing changes can come swiftly and irrevocably, upheaving the previous sociocultural and even physical landscape.

Wartime disaster amidst supernatural horror

And so, like many great horror premises, Night‘s undead onslaught can be read on numerous levels. The film’s low budget and unrefined aesthetic have frequently led it to be compared to Vietnam War reportage, forming an analogy with the aggressive self-preservation and similarly brutal tactics (napalm, guerilla warfare?) present in the human/zombie conflict. And the beauty of the film is that this reading is pretty legitimate, but the viewer can also dip into several other moral and political cross-currents.

For example, while watching it tonight, I started pondering the zombie: driven but uncreative, ignorant of change, prioritizing its hunger over all logic or ethics, it demolishes whatever’s in its path and breaks down human constructions, but can be warded off through well-crafted barriers or especially crafty killing techniques, like Ben’s Molotov cocktails. The zombies do not appear to communicate, feel, or remember – they all simply share a common goal, namely to eat living humans. They’re an enemy without any real ideology, without any strategy, with nothing but an unstoppable desire to break into the house and kill those inside.

One question that repeatedly popped into my head was the relationship between zombies and fascism. They appear to be entropic creatures, with their bodies as well as any organizational structures around them perpetually falling apart. The zombie threat tears into any kinship between their human opponents, splintering what could have been a cooperative team into a group of (mostly) frightened individuals staring down the amorphous menace outside. But they move as one, with dozens of necrotic hands groping at Barbra through the window as if they belonged to one giant organism. In any case, perhaps this could be compared to my deep fear of swarming insects – locusts, flies, etc. – which are motivated more by biological pre-programming than by conscious solidarity.

A militia, humanity's televised organizational reaction to the epidemic

Regardless of how you view the zombies – as a politicized enemy or cultural/biological foreigner – they not only act as the obvious threat, but also instigate the pressures and anxieties within the human group. A majority of screen time, after all, is devoted not to the zombies, but to the humans. And while the zombies act as one, they are split across several axes: racially, Ben (the most proactive of them) is visibly different, although this tension goes entirely unspoken; in terms of gender, Judy and Helen are largely nonfactors (outside of Helen’s role as a mother), while Barbra’s presence is significant mostly due to her inaction and emotional collapse. Harry, the elder of the white males, asserts himself as the patriarch of the cellar, and is incensed by Tom’s (ultimately fatal) decision to follow Ben outside.

Maybe the easiest moral to draw from this situation is the absurdity of division along petty differences when a much more relevant difference (human vs. zombie) is available; this is akin to the Earth vs. the Flying Saucers-type science fiction films of the ’50s, where national boundaries grow blurry when an extraterrestrial threat appears. But the film is far from moralistic, couching its story in the morally ambiguous iconography of Vietnam-era current events (not just war footage, but school and religious protests, assassinations earlier in 1968, etc.).

So this is the genius of Romero’s film: on the surface, it’s just a cheap monster movie, but dig around and it becomes a multivalent hotbed of political and social discourses. And I think the cheapness contributes to its appeal and influence. With just over $100,000, a few guys with some experience making commercials managed to put together a very scary movie with a compelling story. The zombies don’t have Jack Pierce makeup or anything, but they’re nonetheless genuinely frightening, and their ripped shirts and pustule-ridden faces photograph well in black and white.

Race and systems of power in the face of a zombie apocalypse

Zombies (as a number of films have shown) innately lie on the edge between horror and comedy – the gaping faces and moaning probably contribute – but Romero places his securely in the domain of horror. He never studied under Roger Corman, and his lack of Hollywood roots do significantly differentiate his style from the Corman grads’ early films, but nonetheless there is a shared fondness for fear at minimal cost. In Romero, though, it’s married to a penchant for social observation which I think is lacking in Corman’s grandstanding, happily schlocky films (just compare the acting style of Vincent Price to Duane Jones to John Amplas).

In case my discussion has left any doubt, Night of the Living Dead is never really overtly political. It sticks to its title’s drive-in horror roots. But it’s never dumb, nor does it allow its conflict to overwhelm its characters or ideas. I see it as a great Halloween movie, potent at inspiring fear both from its monsters and from its ambiguities. So lie back, watch it, get sucked into the nervous tension, and remember: they’re coming to get you… Barbra. With its gritty, quasi-realistic style, its frightening end-of-days scenario, and its bottomless pool of ideas about humanity and violence, Night of the Living Dead is one of my favorite movies.

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